Hope you’re all well on this wet and dismal Thursday evening. I wanted to use this rare opportunity of a free evening to write a review of this book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, for you all. This book is like a hug, honestly. I absolutely loved it! I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
On with the review…
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set in January 1946. It was a time where London was merely rubble due to the Second World War. The novels main protagonist, Juliet Ashton, is a known writer on the search for her next literary piece. During the war, Juliet wrote a column under the pseudonym, Izzy Bickerstaff. As the war ended, her publisher and close friend, Sidney Stark, published her columns. They were viewed as rather humorous and the made a complete book called Izzy Bickerstaff Goes To War. The novel opens with Juliet searching for a more serious topic that she can write about under her own true identify.
“I no longer want to write this book- my head and my heart just aren’t in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is-and was- to me, I don’t want to write anything else under that name. I don’t want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh- or at least chuckle- during the war was no mean feat, but I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one cannot write humor without them.”
The novel is structured using a series of letters and correspondences. Rather unexpectedly, Juliet receives a letter from a man called Dawsey Adams from Guernsey. By pure chance, Dawsey noticed Juliet’s name inside a book by Charles Lamb. These books are so rare on the island of Guernsey that he enquires for more, particularly for the island’s book club, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”
Dawsey’s first letter is the catalyst for many others off the island. The central person that featured in the correspondence is Elizabeth McKenna, a young woman who had sadly already died by the time Juliet begins her letters with the people of Guernsey. During the occupation of Guernsey by the Germans, Elizabeth had been deported to a concentration camp, where she was later killed.
“Life goes on.” What nonsense, I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on.”
Before she was taken away, she had fallen in love with Christian, a German soldier, and given birth to their daughter, Kit. Kit was raised for the first four years of her life by Dawsey and the Guernsey islanders. Via her correspondences, Juliet is drawn into a world of differing characters and members of the literary society. She learns that the society bring together a whole host of people who found peace in literature during a dangerous and tragic time.
Through the letters, Juliet and the reader, learns the origins of the society. When the German soldiers controlled Guernsey during the occupation of the Channel Islands from 1940-1945, the islanders were living under strict rules and people were severely oppressed. Eating their own livestock was also prohibited. However, several islanders concocted a clever scheme that could save a pig for themselves. When one farmer’s pig died, several farmers would pass around the carcass, each reporting the death of their own pig to the German officials. Farmers could then hide away one of their pigs to a laughter in secrecy and eat with their friends and neighbours.
“None of us had any experience with literary societies, so we made our own rules: we took turns speaking about he books we’d read …We read books, talked books, argued over books and became dearer and dearer to one another. Other Islanders asked to join us, and our evenings together became bright, lively times-we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside. We still meet every fortnight”
One evening, the islander’s feasted on one such secret pig. German soldiers discovered the gathering and immediately demanded to know why they had broken the curfew. Elizabeth McKenna saved them all by telling the story of how their meeting was the first gathering of a new livery club on the island. Thankfully, the story was bought.
Thus, the society was born. They met every fortnight and grew close together: the own little community. Most members knew nothing of literature but discovered an author or genre that appealed to their own personalities. Literature help boost morale and spirits. They read all kinds of literary texts from Charles Lamb to the Brontë sisters. The society enabled the island to find solace and forget, briefly, the horrors of war.
“We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”
As letters and time passes, Juliet learns more and yearns to meet her new friends in Guernsey. It also gives her opportunity to get away from the overwhelming attention from a male suitor. Upon her arrival, relationships are strengthened and life in London doesn’t appear to be so appealing anymore. Most significantly, she grows increasing close to Kit and eventually applies for her adoption.
Juliet also falls in love with Dawsey and proposes marriage to him. Juliet’s time on the island has changed everything. She even begs Sidney to visit her and see for himself the charm and friendliness of these people. Finally, with Sidney’s help, she decides her next book would be: the life of Elizabeth McKenna. Her life was central to life on this island. What is rather touching, Elizabeth helps Juliet find herself too. Julie’s life decisions provide the self-fulfilment and happiness she had been longing for.
“I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.”
As the novel closes, Juliet is dedicated to writing her new book to honour the life of Elizabeth. After all, she is the heart and soul of this group.
“If I could have anything I wanted, I would choose story without end, and it seems I have lots of company in that.”
This book is pure magic. I laughed and felt the pain of the islander’s when they lost Elizabeth. It’s heartwarming and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. The use of letters as the narrative structure emphasises the emotions and the secrecy of this society. I was sad this novel came to a close.
Big love x